Testimony of Scott Pearson, PCSB executive director, on charter school facilities misses main point

Last Wednesday, Scott Pearson provided the most detailed and passionate testimony before the D.C. Council of his eight and a half years as executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board. The occasion was a hearing on the Master Facilities Plan, and Mr. Pearson used his opportunity to poke a huge hole in the administration of Mayor Bowser’s contention that there are only three surplus DCPS facilities that could be turned over to charter schools. From his remarks:

“We put city-owned buildings potentially available to charter schools into seven categories.
Category one is the one building that we and the city agree is vacant, and for which the city is currently seeking offers from public charter schools. This building is Ferebee Hope, a 193,000 square foot facility in Ward 8.
In category two are two buildings that we and the city agree are vacant, but for which the city says that DCPS is currently “evaluating programming” – which we fear is a euphemism for “allowing to demise.” The buildings in this category are Spingarn, a 225,000 square foot building in Ward 5, and Winston, a 138,000 square foot building in Ward 7. Both should be immediately released to public charter schools.
Category three is a building that will soon be vacant. As this council well knows, a new Banneker High School is being constructed. When it is ready in Summer, 2021, the old building will be available, 146,000 square feet in Ward 1.  The city should begin planning now to transfer this to a public charter school before the building deteriorates and requires major repairs.
Category four is a building that was wrongly removed from the list of surplus buildings. I say wrongly because it is a vacant school building highly sought-after by charter schools. Fletcher Johnson, a 302,000 square foot building in Ward 7, is instead being redeveloped by DMPED. All agree the site is large enough to accommodate both school and other uses. It is essential that the city ensure space at this redeveloped site for a public charter school.
Category five contains four DCPS buildings that in the past few years have been allowed to house other city agencies. Given our facilities shortage the city’s first priority should be to use public school buildings for public schools.  Moreover, in all of these sites, the residing city agency is not using all of the space, so if these agencies won’t move, they should at least co-locate. The four buildings are Emery in Ward Five, used for DCPS administration, Kenilworth in Ward 7, used by DPR, Malcolm X in Ward 8, used by DPR and DOES, and Wilkinson in Ward 8, used by the DC Infrastructure Academy.
Category six is a nearly empty, 100,000 square foot building owned by another agency. I’m referring to DC Public Library’s Penn Center building at 1709 3rd Street NE in Ward 5. A careful review of city buildings would likely find other such opportunities, but this one is truly low hanging fruit.
Finally, in category seven are three buildings used by DCPS for swing space – Davis, Garnet-Patterson, and Meyer. DCPS needs swing space. But from time to time these buildings are empty for a year or more, as Garnet Patterson is this year. When vacant they should be made available to charter schools for temporary, swing, or incubator use.”

The total number of buildings that should have been transferred to charter schools by law, according to Mr. Pearson, is 13. However, he neglected to mention Stevens Elementary, which adds one to the total. Finally, if we want to know the final count for how many classroom spaces Ms. Bowser could have turned over to charters, we have to include the five structures that she transferred to private developers. Now the grand total goes up to an astonishing 19 schools.

There are almost 12,000 students on charter school wait lists. There are many charters that are currently desperate for permanent facility space. When you combine these two facts that only conclusion that can be reached, sadly and unfortunately, is that Mayor Bowser does not care about our children.

Prominent members of our local charter movement have speculated as to why Ms. Boswer is skirting a legal and moral prerogative. One view is that the Mayor is holding onto these sites to purposely limit the number of students in charters so that the share of pupils attending traditional schools during her tenure does not fall under 50 percent.

Can this at all be true?

I want to conclude with a few lines from a recent analysis by David Osborne and Tressa Pankovits, both from the Progressive Policy Institute who were kind enough to spend some time on the telephone with me recently to review this data.

“The bottom line: DCPS has improved by leaps and bounds, but it has not figured out how to educate its poorest students. In contrast, many of the city’s charter schools have figured that out. The 2019 NAEP score gap between D.C.’s FRL [Free and Reduced Lunch]-eligible charter students and other charter students in eighth grade was 12 points; in fourth grade it averaged just 10 points.

The city’s annual PAARC test results confirm what we saw on the NAEP. In wards 5, 7 and 8, which have the highest concentrations of poor children, 22 of the top-performing 23 schools were charters. The one DCPS school in the top 23, McKinley Tech High School, selects its students. The charter schools vastly outperform DCPS schools in these three wards — roughly doubling DCPS’s percentage of students who score a 4 or 5 (meeting or exceeding expectations).”

If we truly care about the future of our most vulnerable kids, then the empty deteriorating surplus DCPS buildings would be immediately given to charters.

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